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Encounter helps erase years of bigotry

Opinion Column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

How many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free?

— Bob Dylan

If we pay close enough attention, life has a way of giving us what we need to overcome some of our inequities.

Through the first 14 years or so of my life, I looked on people of color — anyone who wasn’t of a similar skin hue as my own — as an inferior being. Understand, I was simply mirroring the lessons of life that I’d been taught, mired in the bigotry that had been handed down in my family for generations.

I can’t remember specifically, but I know I was in my tweens before I was told that use of the n-word was offensive. Prejudice, I would later discover, is a byproduct of ignorance and, like my parents before me, I based my reaction to black people on misinformation that had been drilled into me since birth.

But I learned a lesson that would make me question that hurtful dogma as a 15-year-old innocent at, of all places, summer football camp.

As a skinny, scared 120-pounder, I was certainly in no danger of replacing anyone on the depth chart at Irwin County High School, then one of the traditional powerhouse football programs in the state. I tried to learn as much as I could without angering any of the upperclassmen, who traditionally took great delight in torturing the underclassmen among them.

One of the most memorable elements of that football camp, held at South Georgia College in Douglas, was watching some really amazing athletes show off their skills. One in particular stood out.

His name was Charles, and his ebony skin covered rippling muscles that made him an almost unblockable terror on the defensive line. And despite his impressive size, Charles was easily one of the three fastest athletes at the ICHS camp on a team that was loaded with exceptional athletes.

I happened to be in the dorms one evening when I saw a group of upperclassmen — athletes I was actually in awe of even as I sought to be one of their teammates — burst out of a room, laughing uproariously. I tried to shrink into the wall until they’d gone their way, wary that they might turn their wrath on me, and when they went off in the other direction I walked past the room the group had come out of.

I looked in the room and was stunned at what I saw.

Sitting on the bed, staring straight ahead, was Charles. I did a double-take when I noticed tears running down his cheeks.

I tentatively walked into the room and asked this amazing athlete, so intimidating and stoic a presence on the football field, if he was OK. He only stared straight ahead, the tears — tears of anger, it turned out — coming in a steady stream. Uncomfortable in the silence, I started to walk out.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said, and his words were filled with a pain that moved me. I remained silent, and Charles turned his gaze on me. I was afraid he might see my presence as an intrusion, and I started easing out of the room. He surprised me by saying, “Come on in, man, and shut that door.”

I was almost as afraid as I was curious, but curiosity won out, and I went into the room, closing the door behind me. I stood there, tentative and embarrassed, and waited. After a while Charles started talking.

“My grandma told me if I was going to play football, I had to listen to the coaches and do what I was told,” he said. “She also told me not to expect things to be fair, but that I could not let my temper get the best of me no matter what happened.”

I didn’t respond.

“Those rednecks who came in here have been after me since summer practice started,” he continued. “They have their place on the team, and I think they’re scared I’m going to beat out one of their buddies, so they’ve been picking at me, trying to start something. And they always do it when there’s a group of them.

“You notice how they always call me ‘Charlie boy’ when they’re talking to me? They’ve figured out that that drives me crazy.”

In my naivete, I asked him what was so bad about being called what I figured was a dirivitive of his name. Charles stared at me for a long moment, and I started to squirm. Finally, he said, “You really don’t know, do you?”

Over the next hour or so, Charles explained to me why our teammates’ words hurt him. He explained the hardships he and his family had gone through simply because they had dark skin. He gave me a civil rights tutorial more compelling than anything I ever heard in a classroom or read in a book.

When I got up to walk out of the room, I got the feeling Charles was embarrassed to have shared his thoughts with me. I’m sure he wondered if I, a virtual stranger, would share them with others on the team. I was too confused to really comment at that time, and we just kind of nodded at each other as I left the room.

But in the days and weeks and months that followed, I started noticing little things that hadn’t registered with me before. Inspired by Charles’ words, I also started talking openly about race with black teammates and classmates who were more my age. And at a time and in a place where it was considered heresy, I gradually came to realize that all that stuff I’d been taught over the years was wrong.

I only wish some people, many of whom are now in positions of prominence, had had their own chance meeting with someone like Charles along the way.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.

Comments

southwestga 1 year, 4 months ago

Carlton, before the trolls come on, this was beautiful. Thanks.

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Sister_Ruby_Two 1 year, 4 months ago

White Guilt is so ugly and self demeaning.............

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MRKIA 1 year, 4 months ago

SO IS BEING THE PERPETUAL VICTIM....

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erock 1 year, 4 months ago

Mr. Fletcher, overall I agree with you. I think this is a well written, thought provoking, and a somewhat educational article. Many things that happened in the past were not right by any means and I think any reasonable person would agree. The problem is, I had nothing to do with it, therefore I have nothing to apologize for. A lot of things that goes on today aren't right either. The way my ancestors may or may not have treated others ancestors is not a legitimate excuse for illicit behavior. The attitude seems to be "well, the man's keeping me down so I'm going do anything I want. " That isn't true but it's an excuse that's used with impunity.

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Abytaxpayer 1 year, 4 months ago

Another touching Carlton White Guilt story. Carlton I have one for you. I grew up here and did not know or care that some of my friends were of "dark skin" mainly because my family worked right alongside their families and it was no big deal to any of us. Well no big deal until I got to Albany High School and I became friends with a Ms. Vanessa Steel(rip). She attended a "Youth Summer Camp" for black youth and then began to school me on the "Hate" for whites. To prove the point the blacks of AHS managed to ban the band from playing Dixie at football games and even managed to force the school closure for days by staging a walk out and march in front of AHS. BTW Dixie is the story of a freed black slave pining for the plantation of his birth written by a Yankee in OHIO. Bigotry is not just a “white” thing. Not all southern whites grew up as bigots some opinions are formed by life's lessons. I know this won’t make it past your approach to control free speech with “Your content has been submitted for moderator approval”.

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GoldenDawg 1 year, 4 months ago

So just for clarity Abytaxpayer, in your statement "Not all whites grew up as bigots some opinions are formed by life lessons" are you admitting the bigotry of whites but just pointing out that many whites didn't "grow up that way" and further excusing their bigoted opinions since it came as a result of later "life's lessons"? Help me here. Not being facetious. Just want to truly understand your point because it appears from your statement that you're justifying a group or individual having admittedly bigoted or racist attitudes based upon some amorphous notion of "life lessons".

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ittybittyme 1 year, 4 months ago

Since you wrote a sorry like this Carlton...waiting for your story on Black hate of whites..be fair, Carlton!

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agirl_25 1 year, 4 months ago

We may have a long wait. He doesn't want to upset the apple cart.

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gotanyfacts 1 year, 4 months ago

Carlton... I assume you have specific people of prominence in mind who, in your opinion, could benefit by having an experience similar to yours. What is it that these prominent individuals have said or done that brings you to this judgment? I raise the question because, during the last five years, opposition by conservatives to this extremely liberal president has been widely portrayed as due to his color. Implying, or flatly stating that people are racists for opposing policies they disagree with is no less egregious than the intimidation you witnessed. The fact, that it is done by prominent individuals in the media, in Congress and in the White House makes it more so. What experience do you think would benefit them?

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MRKIA 1 year, 4 months ago

DOES ANYONE THINK CARLTON SUBCONSCIOUSLY WISHES HE WAS BLACK?

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NotVinceDooley 1 year, 4 months ago

Well written story, I must admit.

One thing, though, bugs me. As an editor, Carlton, I am surprised you don't know how to spell "dirivitive" and that it has gotten this long without being pointed out and/or corrected.

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erudite 1 year, 4 months ago

We were all black once (well for those of you who believe in science). The oppression and hatred is not gone from SWGA; the klan is still present. It is not white guilt; it is a biased history. We are taught that blacks were slaves and hated by all; we are not taught about rebel blacks who fought for dixie; we are not taught that Ohio was (and still is by many) considered a dixie state. This is still the history our children are taught.

We were not taught about dixie whites who fought for the union; we were all taught a white laced, white male history. This is not a judgment; it is the reality.

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NotVinceDooley 1 year, 4 months ago

I went to school in Dougherty county. I can assure you these facts were presented to me, although I do recall how virulently anti-Yankee many of the teachers were. I had come to believe many of them were still fighting the Civil War.

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whattheheck 1 year, 4 months ago

Another writing on those things best known to the writer, sure to mold the opinions of all who read and don't share and likely don't care. .

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RedEric 1 year, 4 months ago

This is revealing admission by Fletch. He was not born a poor black man in a slave shack on the edge of some swamp. He was converted as a young impressionable boy by his sports hero in a closed door room. Keep going Fletch you will feel better when it is out in the open.

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bubbasmithredneck 1 year, 4 months ago

good story......but this type of hatred took place all the time....those people were ignorant and hateful....some are reading this paper today.....thanks for the reminder!

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waltspecht 1 year, 4 months ago

Carlton, I would invite you to have been a White resident of the Navy Street Housing Complex in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn in the late fifties and early sixties. Or just walk through the area on your way to the Myrtle Ave. Ell. Unless you were a known, you would be harassed, if not directly assaulted. Now at the time it meant either a Mau-Mau, Chaplain or to some extend a Bishop associate. Or known to have a short temper and quick with a knife. Believe me prejudice works in both directions. My Father often stated that everyone needs someone to look down on as lesser than them. If you need more proof, speak to a Hassidic Jew out of Williamsburg, they tended to be hated and distrusted by all.

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Ihope4albany 1 year, 4 months ago

I hope that God does not get tired of us down here and destroy us by fire like the Bible says.

I also hope that people learn from science and history. It was alluded to earlier. Everyone is genetically colored or black, meaning with melanin; the expression of the melanin is what differs. Ex. Look at white people with freckles or age spots, you see the reexpression of melanin.

That black persons who migrated to different regions of the world were able to genetically mutate (i.e., become black mutants with repressed melanin or becoming white persons) is a wonderful scientific and spiritual marvel of God. It has nothing to do with those black mutants being superior, just able to adapt to the environment.

So what a waste! For all these centuries, the human family because of differently expressed melanin has been hating, killing, and harming one another. It is such a painful indictment of the failure of humanity overall.

Thanks Carlton, more people from all walks of life need to come to terms with the past and especially as it relates to one group of humans dominating other groups.

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hotdog 1 year, 4 months ago

I am beginning to think the moderator has an issue with me...lol

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NotVinceDooley 1 year, 4 months ago

I don't think they are even read. The article still contains a glaring spelling error.

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agirl_25 1 year, 4 months ago

I liked reading the article and would like to thank the writer for referring to the blacks as that, blacks...not African-Americans. I said it before and will say it again..we are all Americans. The African-American label is something someone invented along the way to racial equality. What about the people who trace their lineage back to Ireland, Poland, Germany, Italy, etc? They are a few who had to fight for equality in this country and along the way were called names. But one thing - why is it funny to call whites crackers then laugh like fools. Fair is fair. Maybe you need to watch David Chappelle do his Clayton Bigsby, the black/white supremist on YOUTUBE.

http://www.ebaumsworld.com/video/watch/82404406/

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FryarTuk 1 year, 4 months ago

I enjoy D. Chappelle. Unbridled fun.

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erudite 1 year, 4 months ago

Do we care about ethnicity (that which precedes the hyphen) or about color of skin? What box does an Egyptian or Moroccan check off? Are they black or African? African American, just like Euro, Asian, Hispanic, Native -American is a foolish term. Africa is a continent, not a country-there are 56 countries. Hispanic Americans-anyone from Iberia, mezzo and south Americas and many islands; Asian--Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, Samoan....very very different countries!! Native? to the continent or to the country known as America?

Figure it out America, what are you really afraid of?

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FryarTuk 1 year, 4 months ago

The moral of the narrative is good though dated. It had more relevance when Kumbaya was popular. Today's lesson focuses on behavioral accountability of everyone.

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